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August 2021
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Quick Tip: 3 Activities to Discuss Names and Identity in Your Classroom
by Clarissa Codrington and Trisha Dowling

Each semester, many of us are faced with learning a new group of students’ names, getting them to know yours, and encouraging them to learn one another’s. Names and the identity that we derive from them are personal, and the use of appropriate names shows respect. We recommend broaching this topic head-on and getting students to think about identity, what it means to them, and how it is manifested in our names. Note that some of these same ideas and strategies can be applied to pronoun use as well.

Activity 1: Name Discussion

Materials: no materials necessary
Learning Objectives

  • Get to know classmates
  • Learn classmates' names
  • Understand naming cultural practices around the world

Outcome: Students learn how to discuss naming practices and better understand issues related to names.
Duration: 30–45 minutes

On the first day of class, being open and discussing the subject of names as part of an icebreaker can help students have a voice in the topic and also provide both you and students with cultural knowledge about names and naming practice.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you introduce yourself and why do you choose to do it that way?
  2. Do you use your given name or a nickname when introducing yourself? Does it depend on who you are meeting? Why?
  3. What are some challenges you have experienced (or observed) with self-introductions and names in particular?
  4. Why do you (or don’t you) use an “English name”?
  5. What questions do you have about your own name or your “English name”?

Can be used in: cultural class, listening/speaking, pronunciation, any opening day activity

Activity 2: Quotes About Naming Practices

Materials: sample quotes about names
Learning Objectives

  • Discuss names and their significance
  • Recognize the universality of names and their importance in various cultures

Outcome: Students learn how to discuss naming practices and better understand issues related to names.
Duration: 15–45 minutes

In this class activity, provide students with quotes about names and have them, in pairs and then as a class, discuss the quotes and how they connect to their own lives. This activity can be extended by students presenting naming practices from their own cultural or linguistic backgrounds.

Example Quotes

  • "It is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own." (Ralph Ellison)
  • "I’m not my name. My name is something I wear, like a shirt. It gets worn. I outgrow it, I change it." (Jerry Spinelli)
  • "Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names." (Japanese Proverb)
  • "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name." (Confucius)

Can be used in: cultural class, listening/speaking

Activity 3: Helping People Remember: Rhyming

Materials: computer, access to video online
Learning Objectives

  • Discuss names and their significance
  • Recognize the universality of names and their importance in various cultures

Outcome: Students create a practical example of how to teach others to say their name.
Duration: 20–45 minutes

Students watch the video of Saorise Ronan’s SNL monologue in which she discusses the incorrect pronunciation of her name. In this clip, she sings a song and uses rhymes to help people say her name correctly.

Use this video as a listening and speaking activity and as a starting point for brainstorming strategies that students can use to help others remember and pronounce their names correctly.

Students may choose to write a list of rhymes for their name or get a little creative and write a song that helps people remember.

Can be used in: cultural class, listening/speaking, pronunciation

We hope that these class activities will open up dynamic discussions about names and pronunciation and help develop intercultural understanding, making your classroom a more welcoming and comfortable space for students to be themselves.  

Clarissa Codrington has been a lecturer in various settings, including community college and intensive English programs at universities, since earning her MA TESOL from Eastern Michigan University, most recently teaching at Eastern. She is particularly interested in identity, political engagement, empowerment of students, and incorporating American history in language classrooms.

Trisha Dowling is a lecturer at the University of Michigan English Language Institute. She received her MA TESOL from Eastern Michigan University. Trisha has taught ESL in community college and university settings across southeast Michigan and is passionate about incorporating service learning, community engagement, and social justice components into her courses.

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